Food and Nutrition
Postpartum Depression – Is Food the Cure?
Sep 20, 2009 - 8:05:10 AM

( - Nothing turns a woman’s world upside down like the birth of a child. Between hormone shifts, physical discomforts, lack of sleep, and the overall disruption in her normal schedule it is no wonder that many women suffer depression after giving birth. Though attention has been focused mostly on postpartum depression many women experience depression during their pregnancy as well. This condition, called antenatal depression, often goes untreated and can be a predictor of depression after childbirth.

Depression during pregnancy usually occurs in the first trimester, while postpartum depression occurs 6 to 12 weeks after delivery. The occurrence of both types may be as high as 1 in every 5 women and even that estimate could be conservative as the condition is often undiagnosed and under reported. Additionally, women who are depressed rarely participate in research studies so there is a lack of evidence to effectively help women struggling with the problem.

Research shows that people in general who suffer from depression often have poor diets and limited intakes of necessary nutrients. Dietary inadequacy can be a trigger for depression. Some researchers believe that poor nutrition negatively effects mood both during pregnancy and breastfeeding. In pregnancy nutrient demands are high to insure the health of the woman and the proper development of her baby. Therefore it is logical to assume that if nutrients are depleted in pregnancy and there isn’t adequate recovery postpartum a woman’s risk for depression may increase.

Depression is a condition with many factors – genetic, environmental, social and psychological. Food is just one of these factors but it is something that can be altered to potentially lower the risk. Though research is limited on how nutrients affect a woman’s mental health while pregnant and after delivery, we do know that many pregnant women do not meet their nutritional needs and that poor nutrition can be a trigger for depression. Simply eating well may lower the incidence of maternal depression.

A number of studies have shown that pregnant women do not consume enough calcium, iron, folic acid and omega-3 fats. Increasing the intake of these nutrients will not only assure the health of both mother and baby, but it may decrease the risk of depressive episodes during and after pregnancy. It is a strategy with little risk and possible rewards.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women need 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. A glass of milk has 300 milligrams. Excellent sources include milk, cheese, yogurt, firm tofu, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and salmon and sardines with bones. Good sources include ice cream, soft tofu and light green leafy vegetables. Fair sources include cottage cheese, silken tofu, beans, almonds and sesame seeds.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrition deficiency in the world and pregnant women are at risk. Iron requirements are based on growth and need. Pregnant women need 27 milligrams of iron a day to increase their own blood volume and lay down their baby’s new blood cells. It is challenging to get this amount through food alone, so most pregnant women are advised to take an iron supplement as well. Good sources of iron include meat, poultry, eggs, fortified breakfast cereal, oatmeal, peanuts, wheat germ, baked beans, peas, and blueberries. The iron from animal sources is absorbed and utilized more efficiently, but plant sources of iron do contribute to your daily need.

Folic acid, a B-vitamin, helps to make the genetic material of every cell. It’s essential to the growth of an unborn child and a breastfeeding baby. Less than 30% of all women reach their daily requirement of 400 micrograms a day, meaning even more fall short of the increased need during pregnancy (600 micrograms) and breastfeeding (500 micrograms). Pregnant women who take in too little folic acid have a higher risk for miscarriage and birth defects involving the brain and spinal cord. The best sources include fortified breakfast cereal, asparagus, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, orange juice, peanuts, wheat germ and strawberries.

Omega-3 fats are in shorter supply in our diets. Research has shown some evidence between low intakes and depression. This type of fat is considered “essential” because it cannot be made in the body and must be supplied through food. Omega-3 fats are found in canola oil, flaxseeds, olives and olive oil, walnuts and walnut oil, herring, mackerel, tuna, trout, sardines, salmon, bluefish and oysters. Breastmilk contains omega-3 fats and the amount is affected by the mother’s diet. Some research has shown that breastfeeding mothers who regularly eat fish have higher levels of omega-3 fats in their breastmilk and lower incidences of postpartum depression. Another study showed that women who develop postpartum depression had lower intakes of omega-3 fats. Though the research is limited, the connection between omega-fats and depression is possible. And, adding more of these foods to the diet of a pregnant or postpartum mother causes no harm.

Eating well not only helps guarantee a positive pregnancy outcome but it may be a key factor is lowering a woman’s vulnerability to depression both during and after the birth of her child. Selecting healthy foods is important.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with 12 current titles and sales in excess of 7 million books. The books are widely available at your local or on-line bookseller.
Current titles include:
The Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2009
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
The Diabetes Carbohydrate and Calorie Counter, 3rd Ed., 2007
The Calorie Counter, 4th Ed., 2007
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to The Nutrition Experts

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